Thursday, September 27, 2012
Posted by Marc
This year, I stood alongside my wife Julia Katz, as the two of us were ordained. I became a Rabbi and she a Cantor. Notability, we couldn’t have had two different paths to ordination. I was always going to be a Rabbi. I loved religious school, lived for Jewish Camp, and craved the weekends, when I would escape to Jewish youth group events and even as a kid, I Bar Mitzvahed my sister’s dolls.
Julia grew up with a very different story. Coming from an interfaith household, Julia was exposed to certain Jewish practices. However, outside of Hannukah and Passover, Julia’s family did little to celebrate or observe anything Jewish. Raised to become a spiritual person, Julia’s Jewish knowledge was patchy at best. There’s a wonderful family video of a young Julia standing up at the holiday table and promptly telling the Hanukah story…completely wrong!
As she grew, music would become her religion and spiritual outlet. She went to a special arts High School then to New England Conservatory. Graduating from college, Julia was a seeker, trying to find where she could connect music to her broader goals and values. Then one Yom Kippur, a family friend offered to take Julia to services. Hearing a female cantor for the first time in her life, Julia was smitten.
A few weeks later she walked into the Cantor’s office in her locale Boston Synagogue and announced that she wanted to become a Cantor. Then she asked the obvious question, “Can you tell me what a Cantor is?”
Julia quickly learned that becoming a clergy member is much more than having a good voice. To become a cantor, she would first need to learn to become Jewish. With tenacity of spirit and grit, Julia enrolled in Hebrew class, introduction to Judaism, and began singing with local Jewish choir.
However as she pursued her dream, she ran up against obstacles. Many questioned her dedication to Judaism. They didn’t understand how someone who barely did anything Jewish as a child would want to become a Cantor. Because she came from an interfaith household, many in her own community told her that she needed a formal conversion before they would see her as an equal. While I had a pleasant interview at the Hebrew Union College, talking about my views about God and the Jewish people, the committee grilled Julia for almost an hour, making her prove time and again her resolve for her dreams.
People’s comments about her Jewish identity hurt Julia. They were painful precisely because they cut to the core of who she was and who she wanted to be. Julia was excited that she has found a meaningful career, but by choosing to be on this path, she made herself vulnerable. True she opened herself up to new experiences, values, and outlooks but in opening herself up she also left herself exposed to the harsh stings of others comment.
Julia is fine now. She made it past this rocky patch and is a cantor at Central Synagogue, a huge Manhattan synoaguge and is singing Kol Nidre at Avrey Fisher Hall as we speak. However, as the High Holy Days arrived his year, I found myself fixated on her story because of what it teaches about the tension inherent in her vulnerability.
On the one hand, pursuing her dream put her insecurities at the forefront and left her incredibly vulnerable to other’s criticisms. In truth, she felt more pain that she would have, had she not pursued this dream. This is not unique. Leaving oneself vulnerable is frightening because it exposes our weaknesses. We fear sharing our wishes because we worry that others will tell us they are untenable. We silence our dreams because if we fail to achieve them, our failure reflects badly on our character. We are reluctant to learn a new skill because in the interim it means we may be bad at it. Then instead of saying that we are bad at the guitar or Spanish or basketball, we worry that our mistakes, which are a natural part of learning, will just mean that we are bad. We spin stories in our heads: if I can’t learn to strum the guitar does this means I’m incapable of learning things, and if I can’t learn new things does this mean I’m not smart anymore? There is little question that the safest route we can take is to avoid anything that may leave us feeling vulnerable and exposed.
Yet, making herself vulnerable left Julia open to fulfill her dreams. For her, it was worth the struggle. And she’s not alone:
The Torah teaches that 3,500 years ago, when the Jews were enslaved in Egypt, God appeared in a burning bush to Moses and charged him with freeing the Israelites. Yet, no sooner does God finish telling Moses his task than Moses replies, “Mi Ani…who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?”
As God and Moses talk more, it becomes clear why Moses is reluctant to go. He fears failure. He worries that when the time comes to perform miracles he will be unable to do them. He is frightened of his weaknesses. He knows he lacks all the answers. He has a speech impediment that he fears will get in his way of advocating for the Israelites.
In worrying about being exposed as the powerless, inexperienced, inarticulate, prophetic novice that he sees in the mirror, Moses almost passes up the opportunity to be the Jewish people’s greatest leader and teacher. Moses knows that he will certainly struggle and fail during his mission to Egypt and the pain from this is almost too great to bear.
What Moses doesn’t realize when he is about to reject God’s offer is the flip side. By exposing himself to the potential for pain, he will get the chance later to speak with God, panim el panim, face to face. He will teach generations of his people to love God and one another. Vulnerability opens the door for the fulfillment of our spiritual and emotional ideals even if sometimes it is accompanied by feelings of doubt. fear, and shame.
In her recent book, “Daring Greatly” Dr. Brene Brown discovered something odd while researching the subject of vulnerability. She asked her patients for a list of the things that made them feel the most vulnerable. At first they answered in the obvious ways, citing things like sickness, loss of a loved one, loss of a job, and divorce. But when pushed harder, this is what she found:
Standing over a sleeping child
Loving my job
Spending time with my parents
Going into remission
Falling in love
It took a good year of therapy for Dr. Brown to embrace this paradigm shift in thinking. True, being vulnerable means risking failure, but it is also directly tied to happiness.
Each item expressed brings with it a great deal of baggage and fear. The more we love someone, the more that is on the line if that relationship were to fail. The more we let someone in to who we really are, the more fodder they have access to if they were to try to hurt us. The more a parent loves a child, the harder it will be when that child seeks independence. If an addict gives up his drug habit, it means he will be healthier and happier but it also means he may have to face the inner demons he was hiding by using.
As I learned more, I found myself agreeing about the tie between vulnerability and happiness, especially as it pertains to getting promoted. When I began officially as a Rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohim a few months ago, I was incredibly scared. I had been the Rabbinic intern for three years and I knew how to do my job. Getting the title of Rabbi meant that I could expect a higher level of scrutiny to my actions. In truth, this fear was my own invention.
This summer, I performed the first four funerals of my rabbinic career, but I almost postponed them all by nearly refusing to perform my first one, which by the way was seven days into the job. I was so worried that I wouldn’t live up to the perfect image of the Rabbi that I had created for myself that I almost said no. I feared little things like forgetting the words to the prayers and bigger things like saying the wrong name of the deceased or God forbid, falling into the grave. I like many others, could only picture two scenarios: I would either need to be perfect or I would be disastrous.
During that funeral, I absolutely made mistakes. I got to the subway only to realize I had forgotten my eulogy on my kitchen table. I misjudged how long the funeral and burial would take and had to catch a ride home to Brooklyn in the hearse. However, these mistakes did not matter. That funeral, and the other three, would become the most meaningful part of my summer. Through the vulnerability created by my becoming a Rabbi, I would enter people’s lives in ways I would never imagine and be inspired more than I knew possible.
In a way, our ancient ancestors knew the tie between vulnerability and positive emotions like joy, creativity, fulfillment, and love. There is an ancient Talmudic teaching that the only way to truly become a scholar of Torah is to stumble over the words (Talmud Bavli Gittin 43a). True we want to be right, but our ancestors knew that the embarrassment felt by not knowing something was the first step to knowledge. If we failed to make mistakes in the classroom we would never improve our skills.
The Rabbis also relate vulnerability to leadership. They ask the question: why is it that King Saul, ancient Israel’s first king, did not warrant his children to be king after him. Why instead does David and his line become the kings of Israel? Their answer is telling. Saul sinned by trying all the time to be to perfect and wasn’t genuine. He never let himself be vulnerable and therefore wasn’t an open enough leader. A real leader, our tradition teaches, must wear his flaws like a coat (Yoma 22b). Only then would he understand those he leads and they him.
Perhaps the most famous acknowledgment about the power of vulnerability appears in the prayer Hineini, which is recited during Musaf services on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Called affectionately the “Hazzan’s prayer” Cantor’s around the country, like Julia, are called upon to stand publically before their Congregation and express their fears in song. The liturgical poem expresses the fear they may feel in being a prayer leader, the paradox in asking for forgiveness when they themselves are imperfect. They even have to acknowledge, on Yom Kippur of all days, that they could be better looking and have better voices. Yet, the prayer continues, in spite of these and other imperfections. God should accept their prayers. In a way, reciting this prayer and publically acknowledging their vulnerability makes them more human, more humble, and gives them the honor of leading a community in prayer. And it also makes them more open to God.
This is because vulnerability isn’t just the seat of joy and creativity but also of spirituality. Two generations ago, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel came up with the idea of radical amazement, the feeling one gets when he stands in awe of the natural world. Standing before a mountain or a vast expanse of water is powerful, precisely because it makes us feel so small and human. In feeling this awe, Heschel teaches, we feel God. Those who reject weakness, who refuse to feel small, may miss significant experiences with the divine.
Radical amazement is tied to vulnerability in another way: both are surprising. We don’t always know how we will feel. Julia had no idea when she started her journey to the cantorate that it would end up being painful. I had no idea when I decided to stay at CBE that I would be as frightened of my first funeral. Not even Moses knew how hard advocating for the people would be. The important thing is not that you know how you will feel in a given situation but that you don’t run from those feelings.
Since so much good is tied to vulnerability, my challenge for you this year is to embrace it. Be open. Take risks with your heart. Embrace mistakes. Let yourself love deeper. Laugh harder. If you do, you’ll be more present, more available, and more engaged with the people around you, with yourself, and with God. Then you might live out the ideal of our ancient author of the Hineini prayer:
Kol tzarut v’ra’ut, hafach na lanu…k’sason u’lisimcha. L’chayim u’lishalom.
That through our fears and affliction we find joy, life, and peace;
Ha’emet v’hashalom e’havu.
May truth and peace be precious to us
B’A’A Shomei Tefilah
Blessed are you God who hears our prayers.
at 12:56 PM